That medical technology thing

Comment at The Observer:

Nonsense:

“But the exciting new possibilities offered by genetic technology will be expensive and available only to elites. So the long century in which medicine had a “levelling up” effect on human populations, bringing good healthcare within the reach of most people, has come to an end. Even today, rich people live longer and healthier lives. In a couple of decades, that gap will widen into a chasm.”

As old Joe Schumpeter pointed out:

“The capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production which unavoidably also means production for the masses. . . . It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls. “

Mobile phones first became available, what, 35 years ago? £3,000 and a £ a minute or something? Now they’re £10 and maybe £20 for a month’s airtime? There’s also been some inflation in there. From, say two months average income to three hours, in one generation at most?

The truly astonishing thing about capitalism is how it makes these new things cheap for the masses. And how fast it makes them cheap for the masses. Medical technology is and will be no different to stockings and phones. How long did it take penicillin to go from priceless to cheap as chips? How long did Viagra’s patent last – 20 years from application date, of course.

There could be a bolus of inequality that moves through the system, true, as a pig through a python. But all of our experience is that new and expensive technologies become mass market ones within a generation.

17 thoughts on “That medical technology thing”

  1. ‘But the exciting new possibilities offered by genetic technology will be expensive and available only to elites.’

    Whah! Whah!

    Once the ‘elite’ have paid for the development, its use will widen. Free enterprise creates the wealth to pay for such developments. But free enterprise is bad, because only those who create the wealth get to the front of the line. Without them, there’d be no line.

    ‘So the long century in which medicine had a “levelling up” effect on human populations, bringing good healthcare within the reach of most people, has come to an end.’

    That’s right, because the government has taken it over.

  2. I remember Norman Lamont putting a special tax on mobile phones provided by one’s employer. Received cheers in the House. At the time, the early adopters were viewed with destain, being up themselves, with more money than sense. How many would be without one today?

  3. It’s a strange religion, the belief that “inequality” explains the greater life expectancy of the richer. Unless, of course, by “inequality” they are referring to the results of the genetic lottery. But THEY would deny that furiously.

  4. As a lifelong cynic I predict that the exciting possibilities most chosen will be 1. Big tits 2. Pretty face 3. and so on down to 10. High IQ.

  5. “And even if it is only the rich who benefit, that is better than no one benefitting.”: very true; very unfashionable.

  6. Of course, by supporting ‘action’ on ‘climate change’, the Guardian is doing everything it can to ensure new medical treatments, or anything else for that matter, are the preserve of “the rich”.

  7. Bloke in Costa Rica

    I reckon if there is real life extension technology (like tripling longevity with real quality of life) then the first place you’ll see it isn’t rich people, but rich people’s pets. Imagine if you could have a healthy pooch for 40 years instead of 13.

  8. It’s a strange religion, the belief that “inequality” explains the greater life expectancy of the richer.

    For a start, they never stop to consider that if you are chronically ill you are likely to be poor: they’ve got the causation arse-backwards.

  9. Just had a cup of tea.
    Tea used to be a drink restricted to the rich. Had sugar in it – hey that used to be restricted to the rich too.

    Government and campaigners may push for some stuff just to be restricted to the rich, the trend in society is to make the items available on a broad basis – far more money in the population as a whole than just restricting to the rich.

  10. Bloke in North Dorset

    The idea of aiming for mass markets happens even in the unlikeliest of places. From this weeks’ Economist Technology Quarterly on space travel:

    “Even if for now most of the money being spent in space remains with old government programmes and incumbent telecom providers, space travel is moving from the world of government procurement and aerospace engineering giants to the world of venture-capital-funded startups and business plans that rely on ever cheaper services provided to ever more customers.”

    The article is about how private industry is now leading the way in innovation of space launches.

  11. Tim Newman,

    “For a start, they never stop to consider that if you are chronically ill you are likely to be poor: they’ve got the causation arse-backwards.”

    And also that the poor smoke far more than the rich, and smoking has a big effect on life expectancy.

  12. The cost of gene-based medicine, whether a full gene sequence or “molecular diagnostics” to detect pathogens by their genetic sequence, is dropping in price very quickly, quite likely faster than mobile phones did. A molecular diagnostic system (Xpert-MTB) is already sometimes used as part of the process of diagnosing TB in developing countries, with 50% subsidy from the Gates Foundation, and the need for that subsidy will likely go away over the next few years as competing systems come to market.

  13. The article is about how private industry is now leading the way in innovation of space launches.

    The Economist won’t like that. They’ll be wanting some of their mates from Balliol College to form a government department to regulate it.

  14. The gatekeepers at the BMA (and of course the NHS) will do their best to keep such improvements out of the hands of consumers.

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